Liberation Theology

This post reminded me of my old influence from Theology of Liberation, in particular from Latin America. I grew up Northeast urban working-class Irish Catholic, so labor unions are in my blood. In addition, I have belonged to two, NABET (now part of the CWA) as a broadcast journalist and SEIU as a caseworker. Full disclosure: I helped lead my NABET Local. But I never studied Liberation Theo. till I spent a year and a half at Gonzaga University* Graduate School’s Department of Religious Studies, 1991-92… though I did connect with GU via their ads in the National Catholic Reporter, the independent, lay-run, progressive weekly religious newspaper, so I doubtless picked up some there too.

(*–In the days before their Men’s Basketball team got so good!!)

At the heart of economic-oriented LT as it developed in Latin America (as opposed to Black Theo., Feminist Theo., etc… though they have their parallels to this) is a much-misunderstood and -maligned phrase, the preferential option for the poor. What this means is that Christianity is best understood from the perspective of the poor, not the rich, the bourgeosie, (Western) Europe (and by extension the USA), White people, males, clergy or bishops especially the unmarried (eg, Catholic religious and priests), the over-formally-educated, etc. – no more, no less. “POP” thus is LT’s hermeneutical principle, its method for interpretation of Scripture, doctrine, ethics, etc., and its source for what it emphasizes in Christianity. Yes, it learns from “Marxian” economic and social analysis, but no more than “neocon” religious figures learn from “Smithian” or “Lockean” or “Keynesian” (?) economic and social analysis, or whatever, merely as a corrective to them. Certainly the “base church communities” – Catholic parish “small groups,” as it were – in the Brazilian slums aren’t sitting around reading Das Kapital or whatever!

Where LT most gets into trouble from Rome is in its pro-poor social ethics and its “Low Christology,” which basically emphasizes Christ’s humanity and life on Earth among the poor, more than the Latin Church has traditionally done… though never to the exclusion of His Divinity, AFAIK. Where LT most provokes opposition from especially “conservative” U.S. Protestant figures also is in its pro-poor social ethics, since the latter figures prefer “neocon” socioeconomics. (BTW, in Lat. Am. it’s universally referred to more properly as neoliberalism, because they’re using the global, “classical” liberal/conservative spectrum, not the U.S. one; “conservatism” would be evocative of Middle Ages Western Europe, not the 18th- or 19th-century USA.)

OPINION ALERT!: ISTM an Orthodox approach would be to seek solidarity between rich and poor, bourgeosie and workers, Christ’s Humanity and His Divinity as it were. (Especially within the same Church: One of LT’s big beefs is the fact that both the poor and the rich in Lat. Am. belong to the same, Latin Church, but the rich don’t act like brothers and sisters of the poor, in Christ.) A “Chalcedonian” solution, if you will. Both perspectives are necessary to best understand any particular question; ‘the big picture,’ as it were. As well as, of course, the Orthodox Fathers and Mothers of the Church. Some of them had pretty radical things to say about wealth, economics, etc.! Paraphrasing: ‘Your extra stuff belongs to the poor person who lacks them’… ‘You have stolen it’… ‘You owe it to them’… “It’s not charity but justice’… mere stewardship, not ownership, of material possessions… ‘When you withhold your workers’ pay you starve their families’… etc etc. The Byzantine Empire ideal wasn’t “income transfers” or “social programs,” but it wasn’t “trickle-down” or “bootstraps economics” either. It was literal philanthropy, philanthropos, love of humankind. Not just giving enough money to reduce your taxes through charitable deductions, but serious GIVING, by Emperors and Empresses and other rich people to effect real social change. Talking about health care, the Byzantines invented the modern hospital – St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea and primate of Cappadocia (I), founded a hospital-town right outside Caesarea. More than one miracle-working Orthodox physician – males and females – were martyred for undercutting the pagan, for-profit medical sector; we call the former the Holy Unmercenary Physicians, unmercenary because they treated people not-for-profit.

LT is also sometimes accused of seeking a man-made material eschaton here and now: Heaven on Earth by our own efforts. In truth, some of their rhetoric sounds close to that. Maybe I’m out-of-touch with it after all these years, but ISTM in the end it’s nothing more than what all people of real good will want, a world in which everyone has what they need as well as sufficient leisure to truly enjoy life, reasonably, and a sharing of the burdens of society more equitably. My eyes were opened by LT social analysis, even as a working-class kid. And the concept of structural evil, ie, unintended, unexperienced (by him or her) consequences of an individual’s good intentions working within a system or “social structure” s/he doesn’t know is sinful, explains alot for me. It’s actually not entirely unlike the Orthodox concept of unintended or involuntary sin, for which we still need repentance and forgiveness and self-restraint/asceticism.


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